Of the thousands of hopefuls who line up to audition for American Idol there are invariably a few who can’t sing and don’t know it. There are also a few contestants with phenomenal talents. The vast pool of wishful candidates fall somewhere in the middle of these two poles. For that hopeful majority, producers and talent scouts stand as the gatekeepers to commercial success. These overworked middlemen are charged with the tough task of plucking the talents from the pile and throwing back those unworthy. Some amazing talents will be promoted (and some not so amazing ones), and likewise, some amazing talents will be overlooked. It’s the nature of the business; at least the way it’s been so far.
The same phenomenon exists in publishing too. Many dream of writing the great American novel, or even some low brow burlesque romance tale, but select few navigate the rough waters from hope to finished draft to literary agent through publication.
Fortunately, in the views of many aspiring talents, the gatekeepers have lost some power. Changes in communication and media technologies, specifically, blogging, net video and the music industry, have helped bring about something of a democratization of content. Put another way, changes have decentralized some editorial control and increased access to audiences. Anyone, with or without talent, can be a journalist, can make a song, or make a movie, and forums for user-generated content now allow them to showcase the effort to an audience. And if that audience likes them? Chances are the gatekeepers to bigger media will be more receptive than they’d otherwise have been.
The self-publishing service being offered by Blurb (and offerings from its older competitor iUniverse) stand to extend similar opportunities to the publishing industry.
Blurb is a two year old, small San Francisco start-up. In August, 2006, they closed a $12m financing round with investments from Canaan Partners and Anthem Venture Partners. Blurb’s software allows users to easily convert their digital content (photos, text, blogs) into ready-to-publish books. The tools help with both the extraction of content (including from a Wordpress Blog or Flickr album) and with the process of layout. So far, ready made templates and tools are available for cookbooks, photo portfolios, and blog books. Tools for text only books, whether fiction or non, are due soon.
Blurb bills itself as more than a publisher. Like merchandising print-on-demand specialist Café Press, Blurb acts as a community storefront in which users can resell their books. Again, similar to what Café Press does with T-shirts and merchandise: a Blurb-using writer can upload their book to Blurb’s storefront and set their desired retail price. Blurb will print the book on demand for any buyers, handle the logistics of distribution and accounting and pass along the difference in revenue between Blurb’s cost and the sale price to the writer.
Blurb is not alone in the self-publishing or print-on-demand industries. Blurb has competition from Barnes and Noble funded iUniverse which offers self publishing and marketing tools to writers. Web photo shops like Shutterfly and Kodak’s Ofoto allow users to create photo books. Print on demand merchants like Café Press, while primarily focused on a broad swath of merchandise and not books, offer print/text products too.
Blurb stands apart for certain types of users, particularly the casual user as opposed to the aspiring professional writer. That’s in part because Blurb isn’t yet offering tools for traditional books yet but also a matter of focus. For a would-be Novelist (or business writer), printing an entire run of books for resale through Blurb would be prohibitively costly at $18.95 or more per book. Further, the Blurb storefront will have somewhat limited visibility, and might prove an inadequately small sales channel to sell more than a few copies. For someone planning to print and resell their own novel in volume, I-Universe (with Barnes and Noble storefront available as a sales outlet) would make more sense.
Blurb suits the casual user. It’s ideal for a writer looking for a limited run self promotional tool to help increase their exposure or the odds of broader publication. Blurb is great for a grandmother putting together a scrapbook of the grandkids; or a blogger or company looking for a few novelty copies of their works. Blurb books might make a great novelty gift, or memento, from that crazy bachelor(ette) party or reunion or honeymoon or vacation with the kids.
As a VC, I’d give a company like Blurb a good second look. Their website is amateurish and branding efforts (like naming one of their features Slurping?) seem so over the top an effort to be cool that they border on ridiculous but Blurb’s tools are best in breed for the casual self publisher. Equally important, Blurb’s business model of a hosted-shared storefront (like Café Press), mixed with the narrower focus of print publishing, is attractive. Blurb looks like a business with controllable overhead and goods means for generating consistent cash-flow (assuming user’s like the service).
In the sports-metaphor-speak of investing Blurb may not be a homerun but it’s got a good shot at getting safely on base. If the team at Blurb successfully executes their plans they will be an attractive acquisition target at the very least. Companies as divergent as Café Press (print on demand), Shutterfly (photo-printing) or even a book selling powerhouse like Amazon might come knocking sooner than later.